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Chapter 7:


The Confederate troops in northern Virginia, east of the grand chain of the Alleghanies, now formed a series of detached commands, stretching from northwest to southeast respectively, under General Joseph E. Johnston, at Harper's Ferry, General Beauregard, at Manassas, and General Holmes, at Aquia Creek; each outnumbered by confronting forces, excepting General Holmes's command, whose position on the lower Potomac was taken only to prevent a possible landing of the enemy at that point.

The forces in front of General Johnston and those in front of Colonel Eppa Hunton, commanding a battalion at Leesburg, the western extremity of the Manassas line, were still on the north bank of the Potomac.

General Beauregard, appreciating the necessity of an immediate concerted system between these independent commands, particularly between his own and the considerable forces at Harper's Ferry, and viewing Manassas as the most important strategic point for both belligerents, and the one most likely to attract the main effort of the enemy, which, according to reports, might be made at any moment, had determined if possible to reform the Confederate military situation, in accordance with his views of sound policy. His plan, as the following letter shows, was marked, as were all his military plans, by the leading ideas of concentration and aggression. [77]

Headquarters Manassas, Department of Va., camp Pickens, June 12th, 1861.
To His Excellency President Davis:

Sir,—The bearer, Lieutenant-Colonel Sam Jones of the Provisional Army of Virginia, a member of my general staff, has been instructed by me to lay before your Excellency a diagram, with my views relative to the operations of the present campaign in this State, which should be acted upon at once.

The enemy seem to be taking the offensive towards Harper's Ferry, and a few days hence may find General J. E. Johnston in such a critical condition as to render it impossible to relieve him. If he were ordered to abandon forthwith his present position and concentrate suddenly his forces with mine, guarding, with small detachments, all the passes through which the enemy might follow him, we could, by a bold and rapid movement forward, retake Arlington Heights and Alexandria, if not too strongly fortified and garrisoned, which would have the effect of recalling all the enemy's forces from northern Virginia, for the protection of Washington. But should General Johnston be unable to unite his forces with mine, then he ought to be instructed to retreat at the proper time towards Richmond, through the valley of Virginia, checking the enemy wherever and whenever he can. When compelled to abandon my present position, I will fall back also on Richmond; the forces along the lower Potomac, on the Peninsula, and at Norfolk, may have to do likewise. Then, acting on interior lines, from Richmond as a centre (our forces being increased by the reserves at that point), we could crush, in rapid succession and in detail, the several columns of the enemy, which I have supposed would move on three or four different lines. With thirty-five thousand men, properly handled, I have not the least doubt that we could an-nihilate fifty thousand of the enemy. I beg and entreat that a concerted plan of operations be adopted at once by the government, for its different columns. Otherwise, we will be assailed in detail by superior forces, and will be cut off, or destroyed entirely.

Lieutenant-Colonel Jones will present my views more in detail to your Excellency.

The President made the following reply:

Richmond, Va., June 13th, 1861.
My dear General,—Colonel Jones delivered to me your letter of the 12th instant, and, as suggested by you, I conversed with him of the matter to which it related. Your information may be more accurate than we possess, in relation to the purposes of the enemy, and I will briefly reply to you on the hypothesis which forms the basis of your suggestions.

If the enemy commence operations by attack upon Harper's Ferry, I do not perceive why General Johnston should be unable, even before overwhelming numbers, to retire behind the positions where the enemy would approach in reverse. It would seem to me not unreasonable to expect that, before he reaches Winchester, the terminus of the railroad in his possession, the people of the [78] fertile and populous valley would rise in mass to aid him in repelling the invader. But suppose it should be otherwise, he could still, by retiring to the passes of the Manassas railroad and its adjacent mountains, probably check the progress of the enemy, and prevent him from either taking possession of the valley, or passing to the rear of your position. We hope soon to reinforce you to an extent equal to the strength you require, by the junction of General Johnston and I cannot doubt but that you would then be better circumstanced to advance upon Alexandria than if General Johnston, by withdrawing from the valley, had left the enemy the power to pass to your rear, to cut your line of communication, and advance to attack you in reverse, while you were engaged with the enemy in front.

Concurring fully with you in the effect which would be produced by the possession of Arlington Heights and Alexandria, if your rear is at the same time sufficiently covered, it is quite clear that if the case should be otherwise, your possession, if acquired, would be both brief and fruitless.

To your request that a concerted plan of operations should be adopted, I can only reply that the present position and unknown purposes of the enemy require that our plan should have many alterations. I have noted your converging lines upon Richmond, and it can hardly be necessary to remind you that we have not at this time the transportation which would enable us to move upon those lines as described. Should the fortune of war render it necessary to retire our advance columns, they must be brought mainly upon railroads, and that of Harper's Ferry would come by your present position. It would, therefore, be a necessity that General Johnston's column should make a junction with yours, before yours retired; but I have not anticipated the necessity of your retreat, and have struggled to increase your force, and look hopefully forward to see you enabled to assume the offensive. Had I been less earnestly engaged in providing for yours and other commands, I should have had the pleasure of visiting you before this date. Four regiments have been sent forward, neither of which had reached you at the date of your letter; and you will soon receive further reinforcements. They are not trained troops, but I think they are better than those of the enemy, and the capacity which you have recently exhibited, successfully to fight with undisciplined citizens, justifies the expectation that you will know how to use such force as we are able to furnish.

Very truly yours,

Still persisting, however, in his effort to make use of all possible resources in meeting the imminent crisis, General Beauregard, in his official and semi-official correspondence at the time, suggested that the troops under General Holmes, at Aquia Creek, at least two thousand five hundred men, with two batteries, should be so posted as to be available for a timely junction with his own forces. General Holmes fully concurred, asserting that his command, as then disposed, was not likely to be of any military use; but the suggestion met with no favor at Richmond. [79]

On the 18th, having begun to receive from Norfolk the naval guns for which he had called, to arm the works at Manassas, General Beauregard made a requisition for naval officers to command those batteries and drill the recruits. They came with a number of sailors, bringing their gun-ropes, blocks, and tackles, and in their exercises the terms ‘port’ and ‘starboard,’ novel in the field, were used as familiarly as on board a man-of-war. Officers and men were noticeable for their zeal, efficiency, and discipline.

Meanwhile, vigilant observation of the opposite banks of the Potomac was kept up at Leesburg, an important place, which the enemy might strike in order to sever the communications between Generals Beauregard and Johnston; and such small reinforcements as could be spared from Manassas were sent thither, but without artillery, of which none was available.

From information collected in his front, General Johnston was apprehensive that General Patterson would move to attack him, and he soon abandoned the untenable salient position of Harper's Ferry, held by him unwillingly, and to which General Patterson afterwards crossed on the 2d of July. General Beauregard's views, based partly on reports from Washington, were that General Patterson's movements merely simulated the offensive, to hold General Johnston in check.

About the 20th of June, General Beauregard, having organized his forces into six brigades, began a forward movement, in order to protect his advanced positions at Centreville, Fairfax Court-House, and Sangster's Cross-roads, ‘so as to be able’—as he wrote to Colonel Eppa Hunton—‘to strike a blow upon the enemy, at a moment's notice, which he hoped they would long remember.’ His advanced forces, three brigades of three regiments each, occupied a triangle as follows: at Mitchell's Ford, on Bull Run, one regiment; at Centreville and another point half-way to Germantown, one brigade; at Germantown and Fairfax Court-House, one brigade, with a light battery; at the crossing of Braddock's old road with the Fairfax Court-House and Fairfax Station roads, one regiment; and at Sangster's Cross-roads, one battalion: all in easy and short communication with each other and with headquarters. Most of his small body of cavalry was with the advance, scouting and reconnoitring.

In view of coming events, General Beauregard now assembled his brigade commanders, and, after general directions to all of [80] them, gave detailed instructions to those who had charge of the advanced positions (at Fairfax Court-House and Fairfax Station) touching their respective lines of retreat on Bull Run, in case they should be menaced by a combined serious movement of the enemy with largely superior forces. The substance of those instructions was embodied, with minute details, in a Special Order, No. 100, from the Adjutant-General's office, which was the order literally executed on the 17th of July. This is one of the most remarkable instances in military history, of an order providing fully and precisely, nearly a month in advance, for all the exigencies of a strategic movement, remotely contingent upon the operations of an enemy. General Bonham, upon the near approach of the forces confronting him, was to retire slowly on Centreville, by the turnpike, then to Mitchell's Ford, drawing the enemy after him to that point, which was the only portion of General Beauregard's line yet fortified. General Ewell, from Sangster's Crossroads and vicinity, was to follow the line of the railroad over a rather rough and difficult country road to Union Mills Ford, where the position was naturally strong and offered good cover to his men. The intermediate fords, McLean's and Blackburn's, were at that time occupied by Jones's and Longstreet's brigades. Early's brigade, which had been watching the fords of the Occoquan and the approaches on the right, was now held in reserve, a short distance in rear of Union Mills Ford, to act according to circumstances. A small force of infantry guarded the stone bridge, on the extreme left, where the turnpike from Alexandria, through Fairfax Court-House and Centreville, crosses Bull Run, on its way to Warrenton. The works, armed with naval guns, were manned by the seamen already alluded to, and also by a force of the State militia, which Governor Letcher had called out, at General Beauregard's request.

During the latter days of June and the first fortnight of July, thorough reconnoissances were made of the whole region of country likely to become the theatre of war in that quarter, either for a defensive or offensive campaign. In these General Beauregard had the effective aid of Colonel Williamson and Captains D. B. Harris and Walter H. Stevens, of the Engineers. And it may be of interest to mention here, that the reconnoissances we speak of included the surroundings of Leesburg and the passes westward, as well as the entire square between Difficult Run, the [81] Potomac, Goose Creek, and Gum Spring. The object was to facilitate the movement of troops in that direction, to cross the Potomac, and be prepared to oppose the enemy, should he attempt to advance by that way so as to reach the Manassas Gap Railroad, on the left of General Beauregard's position.

In one of these reconnoissances, made in force—Colonel Maxey Gregg, at the head of a South Carolina regiment, casually encountered a Federal command, under General Schenck, coming into Vienna Station, on a train of cars. A shot from a section of Kemper's light battery brought them to a halt, and, after a few exchanges, the Federals retired, and the locomotive escaped, leaving the cars, which were burned. This was the first hostile meeting, excepting the brilliant midnight dash of Lieutenant Tompkins against the Confederate outposts at Fairfax Court-House.

On the 4th of July the Confederate pickets, well in advance of Fairfax Court-House, captured a sergeant and a private—the latter a Scotchman, who chanced to be a clerk in McDowell's Adjutant-General's office, and whose duty as such was to assist in making up the army returns. They were taking a ride for pleasure, and, having come a little too far, were picked up by the watchful cavalry. The Scotchman at once stated his position, and, being sent to headquarters, was there subjected to a close examination, in which he spoke freely, and appeared, from his statements on matters already known, to be telling the truth. Thus was Mc-Dowell's strength, at that date, pretty accurately ascertained; and events verified the correctness of the information thus obtained.

The increasing forces of McDowell, the clamor of the Northern press for an advance, and the private reports from Washington, all now indicated an early attack by an army more than twice the strength of ours in numbers. And General Beauregard, in the midst of his various solicitudes, balked in his endeavors to procure the needed reinforcements, and grieved also at his unsuccessful attempts to induce the government to adopt his views, wrote the following letter to his friend, Senator Wigfall. It shows General Beauregard's unrelieved anxiety, and his determination, while wishing and laboring for a better state of things, to make the most of his limited means:

My dear Colonel,—I believe we are about to be attacked by the enemy, [82] who has been increasing his forces rapidly in the last few days. He has doubtless at present, on this side of the Potomac, at least 30,000 men, and probably as many in or about Washington; and I am informed on good authority that he is crossing over reinforcements in large numbers every night, so that very shortly we will be attacked, probably by about 40,000 men! What do you suppose is my effective force to resist this attack? About 15,000 effective men! How can it be expected that I shall be able to maintain my ground unless reinforced immediately? I am determined to give the enemy battle no matter at what odds against us; but is it right and proper to sacrifice so many valuable lives (and perhaps our cause) without the least prospect of success? But I hope it may have the effect, at least, of delaying the advance of the enemy, and give our friends time to come to the rescue. I have to apply two or three times for the most essential things required here. To obtain anything with despatch, I have to send a special messenger to Richmond. Is this the way to direct and control the operations of an army in the field? Cannot this evil be remedied? I am sure it could be if properly represented to the President.

I fear General Johnston is no better off than I am; but his section of country is, I believe, more easily defended, being wooded and mountainous. My troops are in fine spirits and anxious for a fight. They seem to have the most unbounded confidence in me.

Oh, that I had the genius of a Napoleon, to be more worthy of our cause and of their confidence!

If I could only get the enemy to attack me, as I am trying to have him do, I would stake my reputation on the handsomest victory that could be hoped for. Yours very truly,

The following letter, written a few days later, is also of particular interest:

Headquarters army of the Potomac, Manassas Junction, July 11th, 1861.
To His Excellency Jefferson Davis:

Sir,— I have the honor to transmit herewith the Field Return of the army under my command, from which you will perceive the effective force at my disposition is as follows: Light Artillery, 533, with 27 pieces; Cavalry, 1425; Foot Artillery, 293; and Infantry, 16,150; in all 18,401 men of all arms. From this must be deducted the command of Colonel Hunton at Leesburg, of some 445 men, who will remain in position there until the enemy shall have advanced to attack my outposts, when the colonel will fall back and unite his force with that of Colonel Cocke, commanding the 5th Brigade at the stone bridge across Bull Run. Colonel Sloan's regiment, 4th South Carolina Volunteers, has already fallen back from Leesburg to Frying-pan Church, preparatory to a junction with Colonel Cocke, at Centreville.

I have every reason to believe that the enemy will begin his advance from his present position, at or about Falls Church, to-morrow or on the following day, [83] with a force not short of 35,000 men, supported by a reserve of not less than 15,000 infantry. To these I can oppose but about 16,500, reserving about 1500, merely for camp guards, pickets, and the garrison of the intrenched camp here. In consequence of this great disparity in numbers, I have issued the Special Order No. 100, enclosed herewith, concentrating my troops, in the exigency, on the naturally strong positions enumerated therein, afforded by Bull Run, in the hope of conducting the movement so as to induce the enemy to offer me battle in front of Mitchell's Ford, where his numerical superiority would be materially counterbalanced by the difficulties of the ground and my previous preparations there for the event. But I am, however, inclined to believe he may attempt to turn my left flank, by a movement in the direction of Vienna, Frying-pan Church, and, possibly, Gum Spring, and thus cut off Johnston's line of retreat on and communications with this place, via the Manassas Gap Railroad, while threatening my own communications with Richmond and depots of supply, by the Alexandria and Orange Railroad, and opening his communications with the Potomac through Leesburg and Edward's Ferry.

Of course, if I had sufficient force, one less unequal to that of the enemy, I would not permit him, with impunity, to attempt so dangerous a movement on his part; but, in view of the odds against me, and of the vital importance at this juncture of avoiding the hazard of a defeat, which would open to the enemy the way to Richmond, I shall act with extreme caution, If forced, however, to retire before an overwhelming force by another route than the railroad, my line of retreat can be taken at any time through Brentsville to a junction with Brigadier-General Holmes, at or near Fredericksburg, whence we could operate on the line of communication of the enemy on their advance, so as, at least, to retard him by the way. In that event, if deemed expedient, I could leave a suitable garrison in the intrenchments here, to occupy him and retard his advance the longer, but with orders to spike our guns and follow in my rear until effecting a reunion with me. In presenting the foregoing to the consideration of your Excellency, I wish it distinctly understood, however, that if the enemy should offer battle on the line of Bull Run, I shall accept it for my command, against whatsoever odds he may array in my front.

Respectfully, Sir, your obedient servant.

G. T. Beauregard, General Commanding.

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